Jun 14

JQ Magazine: Heisei Nakamura-za Kabuki Returns to NYC This Summer

After a seven year absence, Heisei Nakamura-za brings Kabuki back to New York's Rose Theater July 7-12. (© Shochiku)

After a seven year absence, Heisei Nakamura-za brings Kabuki to New York’s Lincoln Center Festival July 7-12. (© Shochiku)


By Mark Frey (Kumamoto-ken, 2002-06) for JQ magazine. Mark served as the editor for JETAA Northern California’s Pacific Bridge newsletter from 2007-11, and is currently chapter president as well as coordinator of the JETAANC Kabuki Club.

A warm thought to heat you up as the Fourth of July approaches: real, live Kabuki is coming back to New York City July 7-12 as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival.

This is great news for Kabuki fans in America. And if you were ever curious about Kabuki, it is a rare chance to see the real thing in your own backyard. The performance is part of a very interesting project called “Heisei Nakamura-za,” which was started about a decade ago by the late, great Kabuki actor Nakamura Kanzaburo, who passed away unexpectedly at age 57 in December 2012.

Kanzaburo wanted to give audiences the chance to experience Kabuki the way it used to be in the “good old days” of the Edo period. Back then, Kabuki was a popular entertainment for the common people. It featured smaller theaters, a more intimate relationship between actor and audience, and a more festive, earthy, raucous feel. So Kanzaburo started constructing temporary theaters in Japan and around the world that reflected this atmosphere. He extended the mood to the plays he staged, putting a contemporary spin on old classics.

In 2012, this reporter was fortunate enough to be able to see Kanzaburo perform in the last Heisei Nakamura-za theater he constructed, in Tokyo’s Asakusa district. It was an unforgettable experience. Some of the best actors of our day were walking a couple feet away from me on the theater’s modest hanamichi runway. A special energy flowed between the actors and the audience that I hadn’t felt at established Kabuki theaters. At the end of the final play, the entire back wall of the theater disappeared and we enjoyed a beautiful, open-air night view of the Sumidagawa River and the newly constructed Skytree Tower. It was a magical evening.

Luckily, Kanzaburo’s son Kankuro is continuing his father’s tradition by bringing Heisei Nakamura-za back to New York as part of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. Kankuro is a young and rising star in the Kabuki world who is following in his father’s footsteps. Some of you may recognize him from his role in the 2004 NHK Taiga dramaShinsengumi!

Also performing is Kankuro’s younger brother, Shichinosuke, who is one of the most talented and beautiful onnagata female role specialists on stage today (he played Emperor Meiji in The Last Samurai). One of my favorite Kabuki actors, Nakamura Shido, will also appear. You may recognize him from Letters from Iwo Jima. He is known as a kind of “punk,” “bad-boy” Kabuki actor of the younger generation (though in typical Japanese fashion he is also dedicated to humbly learning the traditional techniques from his seniors).

Heisei Nakamura-za’s past visits to New York in 2004 and 2007 were greeting with glowing reviews from the New York Times. All in all, this is a rare opportunity to see Kabuki in America. Don’t pass up the chance!

For more information and tickets, click here.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Kabuki and Japanese performing arts, visit the JETAANC Kabuki Club website. It is one of the best English-language resources for Kabuki and Japanese performing arts on the Web today. You may also want to join the club’s online discussion group to receive and share Japanese performing arts news and commentary from around the world.

And for fans out there of Yukio Mishima, the author has also posted about Mishima’s attempt to convey the earthy, vulgar origins of Kabuki, the same animating principle of Heisei Nakamura-za.

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